Is Your Brain Leading You to Make Biased Hiring Decisions?

Is Your Brain Leading You to Make Biased Hiring Decisions?

A few weeks ago I spent an interesting couple of days with a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and HR professionals talking about the human brain. We were all becoming accredited in the My Brain Solutions Leadership Assessment (MBSLA) – a scientifically validated tool that measures and develops 17 different brain capacities involved in decision making, information processing, and a range of other workplace behaviours.

During the accreditation course we talked a lot about ‘non-conscious’ brain activities, and in particular, non-conscious bias.

You see, from a brain-based perspective we are all influenced to some degree by bias – our brains are simply ‘wired’ that way. “It’s a feature of evolution”, says Mahzarin Banaji in this New York Times article, a Harvard psychology professor who co-develops tests of unconscious bias.

From a recruitment and selection perspective non-conscious biases can have a significant impact on hiring and employment decisions. While many hiring managers and recruiters are keenly attuned to those personal attitudes and beliefs that they know could affect their hiring decisions, a number of non-conscious biases could also be impacting their choices.

That’s the problem with non-conscious biases – they are non-conscious­. The effects occur below the level of your conscious awareness.


So what ARE some of these biases?

Incredibly, Wikipedia provides a list of over 150 decision-making, belief, behaviour, memory, and social biases. Here we will focus on just 3 of the most common biases that I’ve seen ‘come into play’ during the recruitment process.

1. Confirmation Bias – this refers to our tendency to look for information that confirms our existing beliefs and ideas, and then place greater weight on this information. From a brain-based perspective, this provides an opportunity to take a ‘mental shortcut’ by focusing on information we are already familiar with.

Within a recruitment context, this can translate to decision makers paying more attention to information that confirms their current thinking about a candidate’s potential suitability for a role. For example, a hiring manager may have developed the opinion that a particular candidate is probably quite ‘smart’ given the impressive list of qualifications on their resume. Confirmation bias suggests that during an interview, this hiring manager will pay more attention to information that supports this preexisting notion.

2. In-group Bias – also referred to as “in-group favouritism”, this refers to our tendency to favour people who we perceive to be members of our own ‘groups’. We tend to categorise people into groups based on obvious factors such as race, gender, age, profession, and socio-economic status – as well as more trivial factors such as the colour of their hair (or if you live in Melbourne, the football team you barrack for!).

As mentioned, this process typically occurs below the level of consciousness, as our brains are wired to respond based on instantaneous “us versus them” judgements. We certainly don’t intend to favour or discriminate against people in this way. A lot of interesting research on what happens in the brain while making these unconscious judgements has been conducted in recent years – here’s an example (if you want more, just search for “neuroscience” and “bias”).

3. Stereotyping – most people are aware of this bias, which refers to our tendency to expect individuals to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual. Some of the most common stereotypes encountered are those that relate to age, gender, educational level, and cultural background.

Unfortunately I’ve seen and heard numerous examples of stereotyping over the years, most often while providing clients with feedback on psychometric assessment results.  Examples include:

  • Comments about a candidate’s likely ability to communicate in English based on only their surname;
  • Assumptions that a woman returning to work after maternity leave will only want to work part-time;
  • On numerous occasions, an assumption that having a specific qualification or degree makes a candidate ‘smart’.

Many consider Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) to be the most widely accepted way to quantify non-conscious biases.


Reducing cognitive biases

So what can be done to reduce these biases?  How can leaders, managers, and recruiters introduce a greater level of objectivity and rigour into the recruitment and selection process?

As a starting point, it’s important to spend time getting absolutely clear on what success ‘looks like’ in a role before embarking on the recruitment process. What are the critical capabilities, aptitudes, experience, knowledge, motivations, and personal attributes required for an incumbent to successfully deliver outcomes in the role? And how will you prioritise these – which ones fit into the ‘essential’ versus ‘desirable’ categories?

Importantly, don’t do this alone – make sure that all relevant stakeholders reach consensus on the final ‘Success Profile’.  In itself this process can help to reduce bias, especially if those involved challenge each other to remain objective, and to repeatedly refer back to this criteria when making decisions about candidates.

Secondly, integrate some objective and unbiased assessment methods into the recruitment process, such as psychometric assessment.

Indeed, a large part of my role in providing assessment services to clients is to act as an independent and objective third party. After all, I have no vested interest in anything other than the ‘right’ candidate getting the job. Much to the surprise of many clients, I actually avoid other information about a candidate (e.g. their resume or LinkedIn profile) in the early stages of the assessment process, so that I can maintain greater levels of objectivity.

In my opinion, the role of an assessment provider is also to challenge a hiring manager’s thinking when they see bias occurring, with this forming another strategy for tackling unconscious bias. Be sure to take advantage of this by inviting constructive feedback on your decisions.

And of course, do what you can to better understand your own unconscious biases. To learn more about some of the potential biases that could be impacting your hiring decisions, it’s worth visiting and taking some tests – an experience which most people I know (including me!) have found very enlightening.

The Importance of Getting Psychometric Assessment ‘Right’

The Importance of Getting Psychometric Assessment ‘Right’

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about the ‘ins and outs’ of psychometric assessment – how it works, when you should use it, and how to make sense of the information it provides.

Call me a nerdy psychologist, but this is an area I’m quite passionate about – educating employers, hiring managers, and HR practitioners about the way assessment should and shouldn’t be used.  Why?  Well, to me the answer is obvious – because making decisions about this kind of stuff is pretty important.

Get it right and you’ve significantly increased your chances of selecting the ‘right’ person for the job – that is, someone who can help your business to thrive and succeed, and have a healthy impact on the organisation’s bottom line.

From the candidate’s perspective, you’ve also helped that individual to find a role that represents a good ‘fit’ given their unique set of skills, capabilities, and motivation. 

It’s a win-win situation, really.

On the other hand, get assessment ‘wrong’ and you’ve possibly spent a bunch of money hiring someone who will ultimately end up costing the organisation time, money, and resources, often due a poor fit with the role, team, or organisational culture.

And the stakes are even higher if the role has a significant impact on organisational performance, or involves managing other valued employees.

This makes getting psychometric assessment ‘right’ pretty important, don’t you think?

So now you might be wondering – how do people get it ‘wrong’?  From what I’ve seen, the most common mistakes are these:


Using inappropriate or outdated assessment tools, such as clinical assessment tools that are not work-relevant, or tools that were designed for development (and not selection) purposes


Selecting the wrong tests given the role requirements – e.g. tests that are either too difficult or too easy, or do not measure those qualities and aptitudes most relevant to the role


Having a limited understanding of the role of psychometric testing – i.e. when and how assessment should be used within the broader recruitment and selection process, what the information does and doesn’t mean, and how the information should be used


Inadequate test administration processes – failing to properly brief candidates on 1) the process, 2) the importance of setting up an appropriate testing environment for themselves, and 3) the way in which the information will be used.

In my opinion, this last issue has become an extremely common problem in recent years as a result of psychometric assessments primarily being conducted online, in unsupervised environments.

While there are many benefits associated with the online availability of assessments, many candidates no longer even receive a phone call or detailed email from the assessment provider or employer, which certainly does not represent best practice. This issue can have significant flow-on effects for employers, as a negative candidate experience often impacts your company’s reputation, making you less likely to be viewed as an ‘employer of choice’.

So the key message here?

Including psychometric assessment in your recruitment process definitely adds value – especially if you are struggling to get the ‘right’ people, need to reduce turnover, or want to increase levels of employee engagement and motivation.

But you need to do it well.

If you want to maximise your investment, ensure a positive candidate experience, and get the best possible outcome from your psychometric testing process, then we should talk.

You can also find more information on our Psychometric Assessment and Frequently Asked Questions pages.